America, Land of Discontent

W.J. Astore

Binary logic is common in America. Us versus them. Republican versus Democrat. BLM versus BLM (that’s Black lives versus blue lives). Love it or leave it.

I remember as a teenager reading a coda to that saying: Or change it. If you don’t “love” America, you shouldn’t have to leave it. Indeed, if you truly “love” America, you’d want to change it to make it even better.

This idea was on my mind as a I watched a couple of videos on YouTube by Americans who’ve been living overseas for many years, only to return recently and reflect on how life in America seemed to them after being away for so long. Here are a few notes I jotted down:

Features of America: Consumerism. Materialism. Advertising everywhere, especially for prescription drugs. Fast pace of life and a stress on competition. A mainstream media that’s propagandistic — and that pushes fear and outrage. Only two major political parties that stifle debate and change. Constant divisiveness.

Features of Americans: Stress on individualism and ethnocentrism. Empathy and our common humanity is downplayed. Sense of entitlement. Lack of curiosity about the wider world. A lack of purpose in the sense of living a life of meaning. Lack of integrity, especially at the higher levels of government and the corporate world.

These observations reminded me of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” (2015). Moore goes to various countries (Germany, France, Italy, and so on), looking for ideas Americans can steal as they “invade.” I recall German workers who only had to work one job to make ends meet (roughly 37 hours a week, if memory serves), and also German workers who served by law on the board of major companies like Mercedes; I recall school lunches made for French kids by chefs using local ingredients (the contrast with American school lunches was stomach-turning); I recall Italian workers with six weeks of paid vacation per year, as opposed to American workers who are lucky to get two weeks. Why can’t America change to be more worker- and kid-and family-friendly?

The female leaders of Iceland, if memory serves, put it well near the end of Moore’s excursions. They said America is a me-me-me society, whereas Iceland prefers “we” to “me.”

I’ve written before about how Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden as a way of preventing meaningful, organized, societal change. Another “d” word related to this is discontent. Americans are often discontented in ways that inhibit change. It’s something Tana French touched on in her novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. Here’s an excerpt:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their décor, their clothes, everything.  Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied.  If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous.  You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on. By being content, you become a subversive.  A traitor.

To which another character replies: “I think you’ve got something there.  Not jealousy, after all: fear… Throughout history—even a hundred years ago, even fifty—it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs.  Now it’s contentment.”

There’s a potential paradox here. Won’t the discontented favor positive change, whereas the contented will favor the status quo?

But French’s insight suggests otherwise. The discontented are so busy trying to become contented, most often through a me-first consumerism and materialism, that they can’t come together and mobilize for change. Fear drives them to pursue what their “betters” have, and to admire those people as well. It’s the contented who are dangerous, the ones who’ve left consumerism and materialism behind, the ones with the confidence, time, and independence of thought to contemplate a changed world, a better world. Perhaps even a better America.

31 thoughts on “America, Land of Discontent

    1. I once heard “advice is worth what you pay for it.” Or, that’s something we like to believe when we pay for pricey advice. 🙂

      Thanks for the compliment!

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      1. I believe the operative quote should read, “Free advice is worth what you pay for it.”

        As for advice that one pays for, I remember hearing of a farmer/businessman who had a generator that wouldn’t start. He contacted a local engineering firm and they sent someone out to the farm who inspected the generator, then gave it a kick in a specific location. The generator started right up. Later the farmer/businessman got a bill for $1000 from the engineering firm. When the farmer/businessman demanded an invoice justifying the bill, he received one that read:

        (1) kicking the generator – $10.00
        (2) knowing where to kick the generator – $990.00

        On the other hand, paying the US military, Intelligence Community, and National Security Bureaucracy trillions of dollars each year to “defend” the nation or expeditiously win wars against real enemies amounts to paying for free advice about how to stand on one leg and kick oneself in the ass at the same time.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. The Canadian Dollar has been worth more than the US Dollar in times Past, but we do have Universal Health Care, and other Socialist government Benefits the Canadian People get. Americans don’t get.
          That improves the overall Quality of Life for Canadians.

          It never did give me any pleasure to see the circumstances coming together for the possibility CanaDa might see a flood of Americans seeking Refugee Status, to escape crazy, American style, Home grown terrorism.

          After 4 years of Trump’s divisive rhetoric, that possibility is more evident Today, than it was when I 1st saw it coming so many years ago.

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          1. Having the Canadian dollar lower than the US dollar has been the policy of the Bank Of Canada throughout decades and multiple governments. It increases exports. During the GFC the fact that the financial sector in Canada was nowhere near as exposed to the US centered meltdown as most western nations led to the dollar going to par and above despite the measures taken by the Bank of Canada. The result was a big loss of jobs, manufacturing in particular, as there was a simultaneous drop in demand from the US due to the GFC combined with an increase in the relative prices of Canadian exported goods. I even saw the impact of this first hand with some of the customers of my family paint business. A company that made concrete pump trucks really took a hit because as you can imagine demand for construction equipment during a housing collapse really goes down. The big yacht builders took a hit at first too, but demand for their products (100 foot plus yachts in the case of the companies we were selling to) came roaring back pretty quick. Which was evidence to my own eyes that the “economic recovery” from the GFC was proving to be a very narrowly focused “recovery” indeed. The Bank of Canada has had a defacto target of a $.75 to $.85 exchange ever since the FTA was first enacted.

            Canada isn’t perfect (what country is?) but I certainly wouldn’t trade living here for anywhere in the US – even though there are many places and people in the US I love dearly! Come to think of it, one of the only places I’ve ever seriously considered moving to is New Zealand. Apparently I came close to being a Kiwi as when my parents were planning to move away from Edmonton they did seriously consider New Zealand before settling on Vancouver (Back in those waning days of the Commonwealth a Canadian could just pack up and move to New Zealand if they felt like it. I contrast this to a close friend of mine who has been spending the past two years trying to get citizenship there after marrying her New Zealand born and resident husband)

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  1. I highly recommend Andrew Bacevich’s article at TomDispatch.com, https://tomdispatch.com/beyond-donald-trump/.

    As Bacevich closed with this: “Only by acknowledging the evil caused by the simultaneous presence of racism and materialism and militarism at the heart of this country will it be remotely possible for the United States to take even the first few halting steps toward redemption. We await the prophetic voice that will awaken the American people to this imperative.”

    I thought to myself that the prophetic voice has come. They crucified him 2000 years ago, and then shot one of his wiser prophets on April 4, 1968.

    We hear the voices of the prophets, only to kill them when their teachings disturb us too much. For who truly wishes to awaken from their complacency and complicity?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. And another bringer of light was silenced on June 5, 1968.

    I don’t necessarily agree that the contented are the dangerous ones. Instead, I’d argue that they are generally above the fray; out of the loop, so to speak. Seems to me that most of the extremists we’ve seen lately are MOST discontented, and they are apparently of the “more, more, more” persuasion in terms of consumerism, particularly when it comes to guns and their acoutrements.

    But then again, the question depends on what kind of discontent we’re discussing, and to whom the “danger” is directed. One can be contented when it comes to possessions and status, but very unhappy with the state of the world (me, for example). Conversely, one can be continually clawing for more stuff and more importance, and see “the system,” or “the others” as the impediments, and want to destroy everything that stands in their way.

    In either of the above cases, it’s the status quo that is threatened.

    Or, one can be content with home and possessions as is, and pay little or no attention to outside happenings (perfectly possible, even over decades). Or one can be so totally occupied with getting more “things,” one never comes out of the bubble of pure acquisition mode (the example French uses, if I understand correctly). In these two instances, the danger is to a future, improved world.

    All this to say that either contentment or discontent can be dangerous, according to the references one uses.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I will respond in more detail if I get the time. Briefly I can’t imagine a more on-target post.

    The human brain is wired to be discontent because contentment is neurologically unstable. This was part of the article published in Frontiers in Psychiatry: The Unease Modulation Model. That is a scientific paper and I will summarize the point about contentment as follows:

    First I define “unease” as the sum of desire and aversion. Desire is wanting what we do not have and aversion is having what we do not want. Unease is the sum of those.

    Now pleasure comes from obtaining what we desire or avoiding what we are averse to. From the definition of unease this means pleasure comes from a reduction in unease. The faster and larger the reduction the greater the pleasure.

    Here is the critical point. Pleasure is NOT the absence of unease. It is the REDUCTION in unease that gives pleasure.

    If we are content, we don’t desire anything and are not particularly averse to anything. That means unease is low. BUT if unease is low then it can’t be reduced so therefore we can’t feel pleasure. Contentment is unstable, and this is hardwired into our brain. This is as mathematical as Newton’s laws of motion.

    The fact that contentment is unstable has benefits. It drives people to discover and invent things that have reduced suffering. It also causes people to do actions that increase suffering.

    So tying that into your comment about Jesus and MLK. Prophets have pointed out how to use the fact that contentment is unstable beneficially instead of harmfully. The key is to realize that in an interdependent universe I need to treat my neighbor as myself because in a very deep way my neighbor IS myself.

    With that frame of reference my desires and aversions change. I don’t desire more wealth unless others share in it. I don’t desire to avoid suffering unless that helps others avoid suffering. And I even can desire that others reduce suffering even if I have to give up some things I desire for myself. My brain stops appraising unease solely in relation to my own ego but rather in relation to those I am connected to (which is everyone). That changes the feedback loops in the equations and completely different solutions arise. These solutions benefit the whole as well as the individual and evolve in ways to extend the benefits to all.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. The very last chapter of the Bible has this image,
    I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the First and the Last.

    There is no Stress or Competition having Faith in that Unity of Purpose.

    Notwithstanding, it does take the Patience of Job, as in Work to do, striving to be a Better Human Being Day by Day, for the rest of one’s Life, rest, in every sense of the word.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s a grey, wet, cold, day in the forest today…
    Your post was a “reality trip” into the amber waves of debt as money land
    I feel like the hand you dealt out today from the deck of despair was hard to beat
    Then I saw this and I’m playing it on your table…
    In this game we have just engaged in…
    Sadly, nobody wins…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Michael Tracey @mtracey
    [Impeachment Manager] Raskin says he won’t “re-traumatize” Senators by exhibiting the evidence again — perhaps a mistrial should be declared on the grounds that all participants have been incapacitated by “trauma”

    Michael Tracey @mtracey
    Wouldn’t have been a proper Trump-era impeachment without wildly unsubstantiated references to Russia. Joaquin Castro warns that “foreign spies” were among the MAGA mob, as demonstrated by one woman’s slapstick plan to allegedly send Nancy Pelosi’s laptop to Russia

    Oh, brother. America, land of the . . .

    Special Snowflake Political “Trauma”

    Special Snowflake Trauma Syndrome
    Hothouse Orchid Storm and Stress
    See them wail and weep in public
    “Sharing” what they would confess

    Precious Peacock, Pampered Princess
    Donald Trump and AOC
    Hides on golf course, hides in bathroom,
    Safe from cosplay-coup melee

    One more time: Pearl-clutching Harbor!
    Nine-Eleven! Vladimir!
    Cable-TV ratings plummet
    Hurry! Quickly! Flog some Fear!

    Desecrate The Temple, did they?
    Proles trespassed in their own house?
    Took some selfies with policemen.
    Less like Lion, more like Mouse.

    Post Traumatic Snowflake Drama
    Narcissistic Therapy
    “Sexual Assault” Survivor
    Question that and you’ll soon see . . .

    Who did what? When did they do it?
    How? and where? Some details, please.
    Absent these we must assume she
    Means to titillate and tease.

    Exploitation of Emotion
    Misleads and manipulates.
    True debate relies on Reason,
    Not who “loves” and not who “hates”

    Milton said that Truth would triumph
    If allowed an open field
    Then with Falsehood let Truth grapple
    Lies, alone, require a shield

    See them rend their hair-shirt garments.
    Hear them loudly suffer so.
    Feels so bad they must relive it:
    Masochism “heals,” you know

    Therapeutic Trauma Jargon
    All “survivors” equal, but —
    Some more equal than the others:
    Advantageous Suffer-Smut

    Feel our pain! If not, you caused it!
    Victim’s “lived experience”
    Now constrains what one may utter.
    Freedom lost to vain pretense

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2021

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  7. From Democracy in America, Volume I (1835), by Alexis de Tocqueville, Chapter XV – Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States, and its Consequences:

    “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. . . . in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority, one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.”

    “In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fé, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority that is able to open it. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before making public his opinions he thought he had sympathizers; now it seems to him that he has none any more since he has revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.”

    Not exactly an out-of-date observation.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. William Binney worked for the NSA for 35 years and set up the NSA capability to collect and store the Metadata of every phone call, every email and text everyone ever sent or received.
      They only look it up when someone becomes a “person of Interest” to them, and then they know not only everything about you, but all your friends and Associates.

      William Binney rejects the idea the DNC was a Russian hack. He maintains it was downloaded in some high capacity USB drive. He is never invited on the MSM as an Expert.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Here’s a cure for the four “D’s”
    I am a big fan of Rudolph Steiner
    Here’s hoping the others can wrap their minds around this understanding…

    What man sees in the kingdoms of Nature around him on the physical plane, he takes to be reality. He looks at an animal or a plant, and pictures to himself that these are realities in the forms in which they appear. But in truth it is not so, for what is actually present as a reality is the spiritual world — that and that alone. And not until we nave recognised the Spiritual in the things around us do we truly know reality.
    Everything else that is revealed to us in surrounding nature is tantamount only to a symbol for the spiritual world behind it. Everything to be seen in the kingdoms of mineral, plant, animal, and also in the physical human kingdom, everything that makes an impression upon the sense-organs, upon intellect and intelligence — all these things are nothing but symbols of the Spirit; and only one who learns how to interpret these symbols reaches the reality, the Spirit….’

    Lecture Calendar of the Soul
    Rudolph Steiner

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Reminds me of Plato.

      Some people might reject the “Spirit” as unreal or unknowable or too metaphysical. If so, I’d suggest the idea of ecology, of interdependency, of connectedness. There is more to this world than independent corporeal bodies. A world of thoroughgoing materialism is a world of selfishness, of disconnection.

      We need a sense of belonging; a higher calling, if you will. Often, theocentric religions satisfy the thirst for connection, but we need even more than this, I think. We need a profound respect for our planet and humility in face of the gifts it gives us.

      It saddens and shames me as a human to see how we trash our planet. And how we so cavalierly kill in the name of profit and dominion.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I wholeheartedly believe that earliest of requests “ Tend the Garden” is a sure fire method for chiseling away the harder edges of our calcified structures.
        One of the tasks of gardening is to plant and sow seed. The Word is a living eternal language the cuts through ingrained ideologies of the
        “four D’s”.
        It is infectious and will eventually neutralize the most acidic of beliefs. The Eternal Word is the original heirloom seed, that when sown, becomes the unseen quantum element that The Spirit will germinate in It’s time.
        There’s no defense against the Truth.
        Spirit is the master sculpture, all it needs for inspiration is Seed. Get outside and sow truth on this rocky ground. Our policies over the centuries have depleted the topsoil. But, being quantum, Heirloom Seed finds it’s way deep inside the most firm of atomic structures. Spirit’s ability knows no bounds.
        Here’s another missing “D” word in the American experience.

        ://m.youtube.com/watch?v=atseImSMIWs

        Liked by 1 person

  9. The “features” of America and Americans cited by those recently returned ex-pats are what drove me to leave the land of my birth, The Home of Bob Seger, Bacon Cheeseburgers and Drag Racing two years ago at the ripe old age of not quite 65. Being neither saint nor prophet, I knew both time and the numbers were against me. What do you do when home no longer feels like home? Like any anachronism worth his salt, I put on my Blues Hat and took it down the road …

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Nothing like being a Blues traveler
      Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Pine Top Perkins, Albert and BB King,
      Rosetta Tharp, Big Mamma Thornton, Son Seals, Albert Collins….
      that aught to get you to the border and beyond….

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  10. When I worked in TV, I liked to call it The Unhappiness Machine because being commercial it continually sought to arouse discontent with what one has or what one feels then presenting the material “solution” to that discontent. With a straight face, people call this “free” TV.

    The Unhappiness Machine is running strong, in particular gorging on campaign spending. As Les Moonves told us, Trump was great for CBS. But now I think more of what it has helped to produce: the toxic individualism that Trump both embodies and has mined.

    I think there is a connection between hearing over and over “We do it all for you”, “you, you’re the one”, “…because you’re worth it”, “the customer is always right” and countless other advertising phrases proclaiming YOU to be entitled, the need for you to have money not mentioned. The picture is of you and stuff for you, no others needed. Now, with Amazon, you need not interact with another person…you see, you buy, a day passes and you have it without seeing another face.

    We soak in commercial preaching voluntarily, not stopping to think about the content of the sermon that runs 24/7 from the church of profit.

    Let me modify something from the Bible.

    What will it gain a country if it shall place financial profit first and lose all sense of community? We are living the answer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And now the Church of Profit has its own prosperity gospel. Who needs to choose between God and Mammon when they’re treated as one and the same?

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  11. Caitlin Johnstone has a sharp article here on the real world versus the narrative world:

    “It’s easier to control people through the narrative world than the real world because the narrative world and its relationship with the real world is too complicated for most people to understand, whereas the real world is quite simple and straightforward. For this reason, a tremendous amount of energy goes into controlling the dominant narratives, the dominant stories that people tell about what’s going on in the world.

    Convince people to accept the narrative that a government’s leader is an evil dictator in need of regime change, and you can trade that narrative for real world control over a crucial geostrategic region. Convince people to accept that the status quo is working fine and any attempts to change it are dangerous insanity, and you ensure that people will never rise up and take away your real world control. Convince people that anyone questioning your narratives is a conspiracy theorist or a Russian propagandist, and you ensure your continued hegemonic control over the narrative world.”

    https://caitlinjohnstone.com/2021/02/12/the-real-world-and-the-narrative-world/

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